“Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s.”Gospel of Mark 12:17
I am sitting in a gate area of an airport, which means I am, for another hour at least, captive to fast food restaurants where there is nothing to eat, news-stands where there is nothing worth reading and, of course, the ubiquitous TV blaring just behind my head (I don’t recall asking for this show and, more maddening, there is no “off” button and the volume is such that there is no refuge anywhere in this entire concourse). It is a lazy Sunday in the middle of summer and yet the host of this political talk show—shout-show is a better word for it—has an urgency and panic in his voice as he talks about “what’s at stake” in the coming elections. Now, it matters not whether this guy is Left or Right, for we could switch the channel by one or two stations and get someone else from the other side equally as melodramatic in tone and demeanor and self-importance. It is only July and yet I have had way too much politics to last the entire the year. This is not to suggest I am not interested in politics or haven’t thought through my own views. I once worked on Capitol Hill, served in the Oregon Legislature and have worked on dozens of political campaigns. I take politics with all due seriousness, but not with “undue” seriousness. I mean, I get it that as a citizen in what Augustine called the City of Man, I as a Christian have certain political duties and, like all duties, they must be carried out with diligence and purpose. But what I don’t abide is the idea, from the media and from many in our society—especially the chattering classes: professionals, pundits and politicians—that politics carries ultimate or lasting meaning. Put another way, politics is important but not Important.
As in so many other ways, here the Twelve Step Programs might provide a helpful example of what I mean, and a good example for Christians to consider.
Alcoholics Anonymous and the other Twelve Step Programs have a common tradition that they take “no position on outside issues,” by which is meant, among other things, that you will not see an official “AA position” on any current public or social or political topic, not even if it somehow impacts addiction or recovery. The idea is that our fellowship is built around one thing, and that one thing is to help the problem drinker or addict to recover from the disease of addiction. The Programs are unwilling to allow any distractions from that primary purpose, or worse, to turn the Programs into some sort of political agenda, which, almost by definition, runs the risk of alienating members or causing internal dissension on issues that are, at best, tangential to recovery. We know our mission and our priorities.
Now, of course there are significant and legitimate differences between recovery groups and Christian churches in this regard: even though Christians are all over the map socially and politically, most believers accept the idea that our faith is not merely a private matter. It may be personal, but any biblical Judeo-Christian religion has always reserved for itself the right, and duty, to speak out publicly in the name of its God, even if that takes us into the public arena—notwithstanding the increasingly shrill and ignorant rants of radical secularists who want us to just all go away and pray privately. We as Christians have political duties and we cannot shirk those duties. Still, there are here some important lessons from the recovery programs for the churches. In recovery, nothing—not politics, not social issues, not religious controversies, nothing at all—is allowed to break the fellowship of recovery. Everything else is subordinate to that purpose, for we all know that, without unity in recovery, we will all perish as victims of our common disease.
Now, what would it look like for our increasingly politicized churches—Left and Right—to take the same approach? What would it mean for us to take our priorities and our politics from our faith, and not vice versa? How much more a compelling example we would set for the world if our common message were: “we agree on so much more than we disagree on: that as biblical Christians we are disciples of Jesus Christ, that, no matter what our political differences, we break bread together and remember a crucified Lord. We all agree, Left and Right, that as Christians we must have a preference for the poor, that we are to be peacemakers, that we are to love our enemies. The fact that we sometimes disagree on the best political means that our society should use to accomplish these goals—the Left among us tending to agree more with one political approach and the Right with another—does not change our commitment to these shared goals. And nothing—not politics, not social approval, nothing at all—will interfere with our fellowship as Christians. For without that common unity we will perish.
Put another way, what would it mean for us to act as if politics were important but not Important? I suspect that it would be both refreshing and revolutionary if Christians were to do this. As the French novelist Francois Mauriac once said, “The Church gets involved in politics when she ceases to produce enough saints.” And maybe, as the recovery programs stay focused on producing recovering addicts—and in so doing keep changing the world—we in the churches might stay focused on producing saints—and thus, once again, turn the world upside down in Important ways.